HIGH POINT — As people spend more time than ever in their homes, wood resources have been developing wood finishes that reflect a sense of casual comfort that offer a sense of permanence and durability for everyday living.
In many cases, this means tones that highlight that natural species of wood grains such as oak, ash and maple with some mild distressing. Many of these species are a natural fit for the sea of gray tones that have permeated the marketplace in recent years, complementing both cabinetry and neutral wall colors, along with curtains and other window treatments.
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But sources say these grays have evolved into warmer brown or natural tones that offer a layer of depth and beauty to their environment.
“Gray finishes are still in vogue, but they have transitioned to a warmer hue, and at Aspenhome, we have seen gray tones emerge as a compliment to brighter colors in décor, letting those colors take the spotlight, similar to the warm whites that also remain popular,” the company told Furniture Today. “Grays of every hue still have their place and fulfill consumer needs to create environments that are aesthetically pleasing, sustainable and promote a sense of fortitude.”
The company also noted that natural and warm neutral finishes that show off the natural wood species are doing well as “increasing numbers of people are designing the spaces in their homes as an extension of the natural environment outside.”
Hooker Furniture said it, too, is seeing finishes take on a more casual tone, with lower sheen levels on warmer gray and brown tones, giving the woods a drier and more organic appearance.
“With everything we have been through, everyone is spending more time at home, and if you are spending more time at home, you want to be comfortable,” said Mike Harris, president, Hooker case goods and upholstery. “Our immediate focus is addressing that preference.”
As the world gets closer to ending the constraints of the pandemic, he believes people will want to get out more, entertain and get more dressed up. With that in mind, the company is looking ahead to develop product that reflects some of that shift.
“We want to be flexible,” Harris added, noting, “We also want to make sure we develop a balance. We have such a broad customer base, and we want to service our customers the way they want to be serviced.”
Casual looks evolve
Lighter tones also are doing well in the marketplace as evidenced by Universal Furniture’s Modern Farmhouse, which uses quartered oak veneers in various shades of white including cotton white and light gray tones.
This marks an evolution of the casual finishes in the Universal line seen on everything from pieces in its licensed coastal living collections to its Modern line, the latter of which feature darker finishes on woods such as sandblasted oak veneers as well as some lighter gray tones on similar species.
“What has worked for us — and this isn’t anything necessarily new — is a more casual finish,” said Jeff Scheffer president and CEO of Universal. “It was five years ago in 2016 when we introduced Modern, and most of that was sandblasted oak that continues to do very well.
“But finishes, like style, evolve over time, and what we are doing now with Modern Farmhouse is a much softer texture. We are using a lot more quartered oak as opposed to wide open full cathedral (oak). It is quieter and not as loud as some of the things we would have done five, six, seven years ago.”
He added that light grays continue to do well as softer brown tones with some gray worked into the grain.
“For us it is casual, and texture still works whether it is sandblasted or something softer,” he said of lighter and drier tones, adding that, while he sees higher sheens slowing coming back, “I don’t’ think we will be leading the charge there; we will follow.”
A range of factors
Doug Rozenboom, president of A.R.T. Furniture, said that the company looks at many different factors when developing finishes, including what is happening in home building, decorating and remodeling.
“We think furniture looks best when it is somewhat of a contrast in the room,” he said. “When you have white walls or gray walls and dark floors, you may see the furniture having a lighter tone vs. a darker tone. …
“We don’t see any movement away from gray or decorator white walls,” he added. “People still want furniture in that drift gray or ivory tone to reflect the lightness that is still prevalent in decorating styles.”
Rozenboom said the company is developing styles of finish that might suit both international customers and customers in Southeast markets such as Florida, finishes that are primarily lighter in tone and less textured in nature.
“Some customers like this grainier and wire-brushed texture, but in Florida in particular, they don’t like the heavy grain; they want it smoother,” he said.
Lighter tones, he noted, also work well in smaller homes where darker furniture can appear to take up more space in a room.
In addition, he noted, the company is developing finishes that celebrate the natural wood species. This includes a new finish with gray, brown and taupe highlights over pine veneers and solids in its new Architrave collection launched in October.
“It is a fairly natural pine finish with some color tone in it,” Rozenboom said. “It celebrates the natural beauty of the wood, which in pine’s case there is a bit of resurgence.”
‘All about livability’
Casual lighter white tones — with some two-tone effect — along with some lighter grays also are doing well at Klaussner, noted H. Kelly, senior vice president case goods and outdoor furniture.
But he sees the future moving towards darker wood tones that have not been as prevalent in the marketplace for some time. Yet he sees these too being more casual in nature than not.
“It is all about livability,” he said. “If it gets a little bit of a ding, it only adds character. And along with that is texture, wire brushing or some similar treatment. Texture seems to be important, too.”
Mike Bradshaw, president of Avalon Furniture, said that two-tone finishes — including piece with weathered white bases and brown or gray tops — are doing well in the line, replacing the black and cherry looks of years past.
Gray, brown and taupe tones, he added, also are doing well, as are sandblasted or wire-brushed looks, plus finishes with lots of physical distressing. On the glam side, pearlized or metallic finishes also continue to do well.
“On wood finishes, we are definitely seeing lower sheen levels; we are zero to 10 on this casual stuff,” he said, adding, “On metallic finishes it is 20 and nothing more than 30. We are having to take the sheen out because we are adding some aluminum dust or mother of pearl to give it that shimmer.”
While gray finishes are still selling, he said that brown tones are starting to come on again strong with white also being important, either in one or two-tone looks.
Experts note that the casual nature of finishes — whether white, gray, brown or dark brown — can bring almost universal appeal to many different forms in the marketplace. With a casual finish, a traditional group becomes more livable as does a clean-lined contemporary or transitional design in a casual finish.
Hekman Furniture recently breathed new life into two inline groups — Bedford and Wellington Hall — with new finishes.
Bedford, launched in October 2016, was a transitional group made with solid mango in a golden brown finish that gave it a more traditional feel. The company this past April added a sandblasted gray tone that gave the group a more transitional feel.
Wellington Hall, launched in October 2014, had many traditional design elements. Made with acacia veneers in a mid-tone brown finish, the collection was reintroduced as Wellington Estates last October, offering it in two new finishes on mindi solids and veneers.
This included a translucent gray tone called Driftwood and a deeper brown tone called Java. The company also cleaned up the cases by stripping away decorative moldings, giving it a more transitional feel.
“In many ways, what we have done is taken basically a style and brought a huge amount of new life into these collections, rebranding them and giving them fresh face with a new finish,” said Neil McKenzie, director of product development.
Also, with all of the new finishes, the sheen levels are low — between 10 and 15 — making the groups more casual and livable.
“These are not rustic, but they are casual with a level of sophistication,” McKenzie added.
Kelly Hahn, chief creative officer at DesignWorks Furniture, said that the company’s biggest traction is in lighter and more natural tones, with the bestselling finish in the line being a taupe, tan tone with some darker gray and black highlights. Finishes also have lower sheen levels, at no higher than 15.
That said, he noted that there is still a huge appeal for gray finishes due to the high number of variations in that color scheme.
“They are the greatest neutral in the world because they work with any aesthetic,” Hahn said. “You can take more chances with the bedding, art and accessories. The gray family and natural tones lend themselves to that.”
He also believes the gray and brown tones are fairly risk free, which is important in a risk-adverse marketplace.
“Every market, people throw out five different color options and then revert back to grays or browns,” he said, noting that DesignWorks often travels to hardwood flooring and kitchen cabinet shows for inspiration. “As much as we try to take our trends from fashion, it is most likely that the retailer will default to the familiar. That is the sad reality of our business. Nobody wants to take a chance because nobody wants to go first. …
“It doesn’t matter how hard we try to be revolutionary, retailers will naturally stay in their comfort zones,” Hahn added. “When they are ready to be more adventurous, we are ready to join them.”